John Howe


It seems like ages ago that I wrote a short text for the introduction of The Hobbit Chronicles: The Battle of the Five Armies, and then lost track of the finished version.[1] Having run short of time recently to create original newsletters, I hope you’ll forgive me for sharing it here. I also took upwards of 300,000 photos in those six years in New Zealand. Here are a few. Oh, and we never did quite manage to get those Team Smaug t-shirts.


Even the longest journeys, it seems, start with a single sketch. Five years ago, Alan Lee and I began putting pencils to paper, letting them wander over the white page until scenes appeared, not unlike a lifting of fog, when the sun of a sudden lends clarity to both thoughts and vistas. Five years on, we are not quite back again; where on earth have we been in the meantime?

We started in familiar country: round doors and windows, a pleasant inn, the familiar sight of Bag End, though last time we had not visited the cellar or the dining room, and discovered five new hobbit dwellings further down the lane from Bilbo’s house.

We made a detour through deep Greenwood to see ramshackle Rhosgobel, belonging to the ragtag Istari Radagast, a house split in half by an awkwardly placed sapling become venerable forest giant: askew, propped up and slowly returning to the wildwood.


Left: A brand new Bag End, dwarf scale this time. Centre: Out of mothballs, the original Bag End. Right: Goblin business (up to no good, of course.)

Then on (with an interlude involving a trio of trolls, and with orcs & wargs in pursuit) to take refuge in another familiar spot: Rivendell, though we drew much we had not yet seen that other time through. Then from there, the first steps into territories unknown, towards the mountains, taking shelter from rock giants in a slightly-too-handy cavern. A moment’s pause, then a tumble, a capture, a confrontation and a rescue, followed by a madcap dash along teetering bridges over unsavoury depths – hastily sketching rickety walkways, impossible precipices, the whole in a sidewise cavern eroded through the mountains, followed by the collapse of the final bridge and ending in a jumble of rubble at the chasm bottom. All this drawn, or at least it felt like it, at a breakneck pace. Then out of the frying pan, and of course, wargs hot on our heels (again), fire in the pine trees and… saved. Eagles. Pencils stilled, we contemplated the mountains and valleys of Middle-Earth float underneath as the sun rose, before quickly drawing a Carrock on which to land.

From that outcrop, Mirkwood is still but a smudge on the horizon, but closer to hand, behind a thick and thorny hedge, the house of the shape-shifter Beorn, built of huge squared logs, every inch carved with knotwork and creatures, all reminiscent of the Nine Worlds and the Perilous Wood, a reminder we are at last truly in Wilderland. Well rested, we set out again, draw the edge of Mirkwood, then the path inwards, but the road is quickly lost in a twisted host of trunks concealing a Styx-like stream flowing with Lethe’s black waters. Then the dwarves are captured, first nabbed and trussed up and cruelly pinched by spiders, and an instant after Bilbo saves their bacon, recaptured by Elves.


Left: No Black Riders, but red copters… scouring the Shire looking for likely locations to film traveling dwarves. Centre: Alan Lee searching for his lens cap, an operation with a certain predictability around the country. Right: No lens cap here. (Searching for Alan’s lens caps took us over most of New Zealand.)

And away we go again in their wake, towards the Woodland Realm. We soon find out what it resembles: an elegant bridge across a raging torrent, columns fashioned in the likeness of trees, framing three bronze doors. We have arrived in Thranduil’s realm. We race across the bridge as the great door swing to. We barely squeeze inside as they shut.

Inside, it looks like nothing we expected: the grand halls but cavern walls, no marble floors polished and wide, only great sinuous roots; it is like walking in the nave of a cathedral, but in mid-air. Amber lamps pool the light. We get a glimpse of the throne, huge-antlered, enclosed in gothic tracery, but are soon locked away deep underground, crammed into cubbyhole cells hollowed from a subterranean ravine and fitted with sturdy bronze bars. But escape is at hand, we draw keys for Bilbo to steal, bottles of deep wine poured into cups of amber and wood to inebriate the gaolers. Doors are unlocked, and we steal off, first to cellars stacked with bottles and barrels, past our slumbering guardians, then to plunge into another madcap rollercoaster escape, furiously drawing our way downriver through waterfalls, fortified gates and precipitous canals carved from cliff faces, until the calmer waters of the river are reached.

From there, a voyage by boat with a surly boatman, through looming and mysterious stone ruins on a fogbound lake, and the mist lifts again. Laketown. It is a Renaissance Kiev built on an alpine lake, a Venice all of wood, once prosperous, now askew and slowly sinking into the depths. It reminds us of stave churches, or the villages of the mythical Swiss lake dwellers, but with a hint of farther north and farther east. (We are, after all, deep in Wilderland.)


Left: Hanging out at Beorn’s. Centre: “I’ll never be able to drink all this.”It was quite a challenge actually clambering into that chair, or into the rocking chair on his back porch. Right: Michael Pellerin, the Behind-the-Scenes director, who slowly transformed from clean-shaven Hollywood producer to mountain man over the course of the shoot. The back porch. The oddest thing would happen around that set, since everything was nearly twice as big as human scale, a person walking towards the set would seem to diminish swiftly in size the nearer he got.

There is not much time to pause, we make directly for the mountain, though all this time we have made detours: far south through Mirkwood, to Dul Guldur, the hill of Sorcery. It is a horrid place, full of uncomfortable angles and unseemly proportions, littered with machines of torture and iron maidens suspended on rusty chain. We do not see the Necromancer, but everything we draw tells us who he really is. We follow Gandalf to the High Fells, in a hanging valley in Hithlaegir, where kings were buried deep under hard stone, so as never to return from death. But the sarcophagi are broken and abandoned, the entombed have risen.

But there isn’t time to waste, the ghostly ruins of Dale are a tragic and burnt shadow of the bright city we drew two years before. There is nothing here now, all burnt, all dust. We have drawn near to the Desolation of Smaug.


Left: Orientalism in Dale; extras who could have stepped out of a painting by Jean-Léon Gérome. Centre: Dale streets. I spent a lot of time on the set waiting for the sun to come up, trying to catch the rising daylight. Right: Tourist in Dale, pre-Smaug. Many people told us that Dale reminded them of some exotic place they had visited, but for each it was somewhere different.

Erebor. The front door is shut by the fear of the lurking hoardwyrm, but we drew a key to the back door, and the back door as well, hidden in plain sight behind a colossal statue of Thror. We imagine other statues, like a dwarven Valley of the Kings, but there is no time to draw them. The sun is almost down on Durin’s day, we must hurry.

Then we are inside the mountain, and down, down to the dragon’s lair. Erebor too is silent, and dark, and damp as a tomb, no trace of the splendid kingdom we drew years ago, it is shadowed halls and carelessly broken statues.

Below, Smaug, Greatest of Calamities. He emerges little by little from the page. He is huge, and old, his eyes burn yellow, though his red-gold scales are dulled by time. We draw a veritable mountain of gold through which he slithers like some vast snake. We draw the great red-gold firedrake, thinking all the while of Fafnír and Beowulf’s bane: acres of scales, vast webbed wings, teeth like swords and claws like iron. A dedicated and informal interdepartmental team builds, textures, rigs, animates and finally breathes life in the Smaug the Terrible. (Yes, we will get t-Team Smaug t-shirts.)



Left: A cloak of concealment and a few wandering illustrators. Alan and I would occasionally wander about the (considerable) set of Dol Guldur, likely wishing we could have built the whole thing for real. Centre: When the king’s away… Thranduil’s throne. Right: The Laketown Wind Quartet. My short-lived musical career, from obscurity to local hero and back to obscurity in just three days… We could only do make-believe noise, although the two on the right, Stephen Roche and David Donaldson of Plan 9, are real honest-to-goodness (and very talented) musicians.

Then Bilbo taunts the wyrm, and steals the cup. The battle is on, seemingly one-sided until the dwarves light the great fires of Erebor’s furnaces, and we find ourselves drawing a labyrinthine foundry Piranesi might have appreciated, with gushing waterspouts, hammers and bellows the size of houses, until Smaug, singed by a cascade of molten gold, bursts from the mountain.

Bilbo let slip too many clues, Smaug is bound for Laketown. And that’s where we are: as I write this, I’m deep in Erebor and exploring the ruins of Dale, Alan is on the left-hand spur of the Lonely Mountain, plotting out Ravenhill. We are busily fortifying Erebor, preparing to burn Laketown, the Black Arrow is drawn and ready; war is approaching. The dwarves have just found the armoury, the Elves are coming, and the refugees of Laketown are pouring into Dale. From Gundabad, a rust-red iron fortress shaped like a gigantic blade, an orc army is streaming forth. We need to return as well to Dol Guldur, for unfinished business there… We would eagerly go farther, to the Withered Heath where dragon bones are strewn, or to the Iron Hills, to see Daín’s stronghold, but the story is nearing an end. Finally, when the adventure is over, and the mourners have left the Deep Tombs, we can stow away pencils and sketchbooks and retrace our steps to Bag End, to watch Bilbo wrest his silver spoons from Lobelia, and we’ll be Back Again.

Naturally, we’ve never been alone in this adventure: in front of the camera and behind, an army of several thousand: designers and decorators, painters, carpenters and construction crews, sculptors in all media, fabricators, film crews, costumiers and craftspeople of all sorts, the seldom-sung administrative wizards who keep the entire operation in motion, and the thousand-strong army whose considerable talents are brought to bear in post-production. Sketches become set designs, then sets, limned in green, decorated and lit, brief stops for the actors on their own journey. We have several chances to draw it all, often years apart; a portion of things imagined in pre-production, built of wood and poly and paint during production, then the rest of pixels in post. What we cannot see built for real, we can build in thin air, the real and the virtual end up so intertwined it’s difficult to tell where one stops and the other starts.


Left: You just know you’ve made it to the top when you get a designated parking spot! Post-production is hard to make glamorous in the DVD extras, as it is basically a lot of people staring at a lot of computers (for a long time). Centre: The kind of message that makes your day first thing in the morning… At one point we were working such long hours I took to heading in at 4 a.m. but only because if I arrived before that time, the time clock hadn’t yet switched to the right day. Right: Gandalf on the Road, heading to the Embassy for one of the premieres.

And in a sense, they are the same; the ideas remain, only their realization differs. Looking back, it seems an impressive – or at least a lengthy – list of places imagined, but it is really only a minuscule part of the whole. We could never have imagined a land like New Zealand, so hauntingly familiar and so stunningly exotic. Nor re-invent or dream of bettering the thousands of years of human history, art and architecture upon which we built our flights of fancy. We could never imagine the people we would have the privilege to meet, creators and artists of all kinds from Weta Workshop, 3 Foot 7 and Weta Digital. Nor imagine the vital life brought to the sets by the actors (no, they don’t have an easy job, and yes, they do possess something very special). Or do anything but envy the steadfast endurance and ever-fresh enthusiasm of the core production team, headed by Peter, Fran & Philippa. Nor of course can we imagine our own world without a book, written 77 years ago by an Oxford professor, and the millions upon millions of people who have made it a part of their imaginations.

All of those things, focused through a sharp pencil tip, wandering over a page, while the mind wanders through lands only imagined.

There. Back Again. It all begins with a sketch.


[1] Actually, it WAS ages ago: Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 10:36 AM to be exact. The book itself was published in December of the same year and is available from the Weta Cave: The Hobbit Chronicles: The Battle of the Five Armies